Man has long recognized the power of nature and depended on it to safeguard his health and cure diseases. At a burial site of a Neanderthal man, researchers found several species of flowering plants assumed to be laid to fortify the man as he crossed over to the next world. In 1991, the 5000-year-old remains of a man were discovered in the Alps carrying medicinal herbs and antibacterial fungi. The Aztecs and Mayans used wild yam to relieve pain and treat rheumatism.
Flower of death that saves lives
Did you know that the compound alkaloid vincristine from rosy periwinkle plays a major role in the survival of 90 percent of children diagnosed with leukemia in current times compared to less than 10 percent in the 1960s? Indeed, while many life-saving drugs have been developed from plants, few have been as successfully harnessed as this popular garden plant that goes by several names including “Shameless Maria” (India), “Sorcerer’s Violet” (France) and “Flower of Death” (Italy). Although the rosy periwinkle has medicinal prowess, both flower and plant are extremely poisonous and their consumption can be fatal.
Hidden treasures, precious cures
Today, more than 50% of the world’s most commonly prescribed drugs – from penicillin and morphine to groundbreaking treatments for Alzheimer’s disease - are derived from plants, animals and microbes. If you’re a diabetic and on medication, there’s a good chance that the tablet you’re taking to manage your condition is based on the venom of the Gila monster, a poisonous lizard from North America. Its saliva contains a hormone that boasts biological properties similar to the one found in the human body that regulates glucose metabolism and insulin secretion.
The GAIA Pharmacy
The extraordinarily diverse sources of nature’s healing powers - from everyday fruits and vegetables to traditional herbs to unknown desert animals - have provided man with what some scientists refer to as a “vast living pharmacy”. Pharmaceutical companies invest hundreds of millions in their laboratories all over the world to study and assess the potential healing powers of nature with the goal of making more medical discoveries, breakthroughs and wonder drugs. It costs up to US$2 billion and takes around 15 years to develop a new drug from a natural compound, a long and costly journey that typically involves several stages:
1. IN VITRO testing on disease or tissue cells
2. IN VIVO testing on living things, usually rats and mice
3. Human testing, or clinical trials
4. Approval from relevant authorities
The next breakthrough
There are billions of living things on the planet and only around 2 million species have been identified and about 9 million more awaiting identification. Furthermore, with a current repository of compounds boasting an estimated 400,000 known plant species - each packed with hundreds of chemicals - medical breakthroughs could come at anytime and from anywhere: The saliva of a new leech species in a Congo forest; in the venom of a yet to be discovered group of octopuses living in Antarctica; or even in a sea cucumber and brown algae...the possibilities are both endless and exciting.
It is no surprise that rarely a week goes by without some news on findings of the potential benefits of natural substances. For example, a new study led by Dr. Abhishek Mohan at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, discovered that coffee reduces the levels of beta amyloid, a harmful and destructive protein normally found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease, by as much as 50%. So go on, get your caffeine fix – two to three cups daily should be fine.Sources: advascience.com/pages/references
Did you know that based on more than 120 active compounds, about one quarter of all contemporary prescription drugs were originally derived from plants? This includes some of the world’s most distinguished and widely used pharmaceuticals such as codeine (painkiller), quinine (antimalarial drug), digoxin, reserpine and atropine (heart medications), and vincristine, vinblastine and paclitaxel (anticancer drugs). Indeed, the prospect of further life-saving discoveries is immensely bright; for example between 1990 and 2004, there were almost 2200 research papers about plant-based medicines published by Chinese scientists alone!
Phytomedicine in ancient times
Evidence abounds revealing the use plants for medicinal purposes in every early civilization. Chewing willow bark was prescribed for fever and inflammation as far back as 4000 BC. Ancient clay tablets from Sumeria dating more than 5000 years ago also mention a person known as an asu, a supplier of medicines derived from plant extracts, spices and resins. And the ancient Egyptians were known to use drug preparations made from castor and linseed oil, pomegranate, aloe, safflower and herbs such as cumin, fennel and caraway. For pregnancy test, a woman urinated on wheat and barley seeds and if they germinated, the result meant positive! Interestingly, modern tests have corroborated the method’s usability as about 70% of mums-to-be would actually produce a similar result due to their high oestrogen levels.
Big business in modern times
Our ancestors may not know it back then but they were certainly dabbling in early phytomedicine – the investigation and utilization the medicinal properties of plants, their extracts and herbs. Today, medicinal plants play a central role in both the pharmaceutical industry and alternative and complementary medicine. For example, the willow bark – later discovered to contain a compound identical to that found in aspirin – which was used in a similar way for centuries in Europe and China, is still prescribed by contemporary herbalists. The first drug to be isolated in pure form was morphine - from the Papaver somniferum (opium) plant in 1805. Other wonder drugs derived from plants include the cancer drug Taxol - from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree - and cynarin, a plant chemical found in the common artichoke that is used in treating high blood pressure and liver problems. In 2015, the value of the global market for herbal supplements and medicines was estimated to hit over the US$90 billion mark.
Many people regard White Castle and not McDonald’s as the first fast food chain. Established in early 1920s in Kansas, United States, its founders gave burgers a new and respectable image and reputation. As in the modern fast-food outlets, customers were able to see how their burgers were prepared in White Castle restaurants. Previously, the public perceived the grub to be of low quality made from spoiled meat and sold at fun fairs, circuses and lunch carts. Today, the fast-food industry is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide featuring many household names like KFC, Burger King and Wendy’s.
Cheap and convenient
On top of its ready-to-eat and pre-set portion appeal, fast food has become even more irresistible with prompt home delivery – especially by those outlets providing 24-hour service. The challenge thus is to ensure there’s “good” in every “cheap and convenient” meal consumed. One way is to always share a meal with a friend or colleague. Next, select healthier choices such as vegetables and grilled meats over deep-fried options. Third, never upsize your meal - and opt for water or milk instead of carbonated drinks. Finally, limit your fast food frequency to just once or twice a week. It helps that many fast-food joints nowadays provide nutritional information on menu boards to help patrons make more informed decisions.
From fast to farce
Fast food farce is a method adopted by fast-food companies to make their fare look more appealing. Food stylists are engaged to make the advertised meals appear as appealing as possible and look as if there’s more even though there isn’t. So when you see the advertisement of a burger, it would be bulging with a meat patty sandwiched between cheese, vegetables and a soft and fluffy bun. The served reality however, is almost always different: a squashed bun, soggy greens and a thinner patty. Intriguingly, we rarely hear of customers complaining about their less-than-ad-perfect fast-food meal. Observers think that the affordability factor of fast food plays an important part in influencing consumers to turn a blind eye to the industry’s farcical marketing.
Farce marketing magic
The flawless presentation of fast food in advertisements creates the impression that you are getting more bang for your buck. Images of succulent-looking chicken patty, fresh lettuce plus a thick slice of top-grade cheese – yummy to the max! It also ignites hunger and nudges consumers to give the advertised meal a try sooner than later. Studies have shown that compelling visuals of food can trigger a blood rush to parts of the brain linked to taste. This will precipitate the feeling of wanting to eat even when a person is not hungry. What happens next is SOP (standard order procedure): rush to the nearest outlet or dial for home delivery service!
Eat wisely, live healthily
A common complaint of fast food is that it’s unhealthy - typically high in calories, overloaded with carbohydrates, salt and sugar. Delicious but not necessarily nutritious. Hence, frequent consumption of fast food can result in poor health and obesity which in turn may lead to chronic ailments such as diabetes, hypertension and stroke. Granted that there are other contributing factors such as genetics, sedentary lifestyle and high-pressure work environment. Nevertheless, reducing consumption of fast food will go some way in improving our chances of keeping those dreaded diseases at bay.